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Western Press Review: Assessing The Seattle Debacle

Prague, 6 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- "Disaster," "Fiasco," "Debacle," "Calamity" "Collapse": Western press commentators outdo one another today in finding appropriately strong epithets for describing the failure of last week's World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial meeting in the U.S. Pacific Ocean port of Seattle. Some blame the thousands of protesters, some of whom turned violent in their protests against the world's increasingly globalized economy. Others blame the richer nations for not meeting the demands of Third World countries. Still others blame the United States and its President Bill Clinton, as well as the city of Seattle itself, for what they believe was the meeting's inadequate organization.

FINANCIAL TIMES: Many things came together to produce this calamity

"Disaster in Seattle" is the headline in Britain's "Financial Times" -- "a disaster," the paper says, "that has many causes." Its editorial particularly criticizes the U.S. and the 15-nation European Union, noting that the WTO is largely their creation. The editorial says: "[The U.S. and the EU] must now save [the WTO] from the consequences of their [own] cowardice and folly."

The paper continues: "Many things came together to produce this calamity: the irresponsibility of Bill Clinton ... the inexperience of Mike Moore, the WTO's new director-general, the lack of adequate preparation, the unwillingness of powerful members to contemplate serious [trade] liberalization, and the unwieldiness of a meeting of 135 members." The result of all this, the paper says, is that "those ranged against the WTO have taken a big step forward toward what some of them appear to want -- replacement of the rule of law in world trade by the law of the jungle."

The FT concludes: "The meeting in Seattle was not only a calamity, but also a wake-up call. Policy-makers have left the trading system in serious disarray. Whether that is this meeting's final legacy depends on how they respond."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: Hopefully, the upshot of the protests will lead to more fruitful dialogue

In a commentary for Germany's "Sueddeutsche Zeitung," Nikolaus Piper writes: "The demonstrations by environmentalists, trade unions and Third-World groups which hit the streets of Seattle have at least changed one thing: If they didn't know before, the back-room experts employed by the WTO -- economists, lawyers, diplomats -- are now fully aware that they must tackle the hopes and fears of those people who will be most affected by a breaking-down of world trade barriers."

He adds: "The WTO and the governments which make up its cohorts are in a situation which the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have long known. They are all in the spotlight of a critical public of non-governmental organizations."

Piper also says: "Hopefully, the upshot of the protests will lead to [more fruitful dialogue between the developed and developing world]. In the interests of free trade, there are in fact no alternatives. Trade liberalization has far-reaching consequences for the day-to-day life of people all over the world. If these people cannot articulate their worries in an effective way, they will remain opponents of any free-trade system -- it's as simple as that."

SUNDAY OBSERVER: There is a shift in the world power structure

The British "Sunday Observer" yesterday carried a commentary by Andrew Marr that said: "The Seattle debacle has raised crucial questions about the WTO's role." Marr wrote: "The collapse of the world trade talks in Seattle has been celebrated by many developing countries, Greenpeace, scores of other non-governmental organizations and everyone else who thought that 'they' -- the anonymous, gray-suited apostles of [U.S.] capitalism -- were taking over the world."

He added: "It is certainly a serious humiliation for President Clinton, whose hopes of ending his second, scandal-slimed term on a high note have been destroyed after days of rioting in front of the world's cameras and days of fruitless talking behind closed doors." Marr went on: "The WTO is not about to collapse, and the negotiations will start again, presumably next year in Geneva. But for advocates of free trade, there is no getting away from it -- last week was a catastrophe of a kind that has not happened in the post-war world before. "

"How did it happen?" he asked. "Essentially, the vested interests were simply too strong. There is a shift in the world power structure which the Western negotiators had failed to recognize. The days when Asian, South American and other Third World countries could be ignored are coming to an end. More important, and more sinister, however, there is a new protectionism on the march in the West. The story of Seattle and its failure is essentially a [U.S.] one."

POLITIKEN: Such considerations will not weaken the WTO, but will make it stronger

Denmark's daily "Politiken" finds that "the failed WTO meeting in Seattle did produce some positive results." The paper's editorial says: "The 100,000-odd grassroots protesters who so vocally demonstrated in the city's streets managed to articulate, for the first time, a kind of a global public opinion about trade globalization and liberalization." The paper adds: "When even the isolationists and those who fear any change [in world trade patterns] use the epitome of globalization itself -- the Internet -- to promote their ideas [as did the Seattle protesters], the world can be sure that future WTO deals will not be concocted by technocrats working behind closed doors. This in itself is a positive development."

The editorial goes on: "The aim of the constructive protests against the WTO was not to set up new trade barriers. On the contrary: The protesters want to use the WTO to promote world trade without lowering standards for the protection of the environment, for the safety of foodstuffs, for the regulation of the labor market, and the like. Such considerations will not weaken the WTO, but will make it stronger."

AFTENPOSTEN: The chief culprit for the failure is the U.S.

In Norway, the "Aftenposten" writes in its editorial: "Rarely does a big international conference end in such an obvious fiasco as the WTO meeting in Seattle. According to many of the meeting's participants, the chief culprit for the failure to attain results and even to organize the conference in a less chaotic fashion is the host country, the U.S. President Bill Clinton himself fed speculation that the WTO meeting was being used for U.S. domestic political purposes by intervening in the talks and expressing [Washington's] strong concern about protecting the global labor market."

The paper also says that, in its words, "there is disagreement among the rich countries on how to pass on the privileges they themselves enjoy to the world's poorer states. The EU -- widely regarded as the most adamant supporter of protecting the agricultural sector -- must also bear a considerable part of the responsibility for the failed world trade talks. ... Agriculture, after all, is by far the most important trade area for the Third World."

WASHINGTON POST: Economic growth can only be achieved by integrating into the WTO workers' rights and environmental standards

The "Washington Post" today carries a commentary by analyst Jerome Levinson, who argues that the protests had a beneficial effect. He writes: "The violence in Seattle should not obscure the real significance of the WTO talks: that the multinational corporations can no longer bulldoze through [the U.S.] Congress trade agreements that do not incorporate core rights for workers and environmental concerns. President Clinton apparently got the message, but his staff did not. Neither did the 'intransigents' -- Brazil, Egypt, India and Pakistan -- which blocked any consideration within the WTO of core rights for workers."

Levinson continues: "Here is the issue: We are creating an international economic system that is weighted disproportionately in favor of corporate interests without any of the balance -- worker rights and environmental protection -- that [the U.S. has] so laboriously constructed in [its[ domestic society. The shorthand way of describing this process is globalization."

He adds: "It is in everybody's interest, including that of the intransigents, to craft a broad-based consensus ... in support of a more open trade and investment system that can deliver self-sustaining economic growth for all. This can only be done by integrating into the WTO workers' rights and environmental standards."

NEW YORK TIMES: The march toward open trade will continue

The "New York Times" editorial today is a bit more optimistic, saying: "The failed [Seattle] talks augur no general calamity." The paper writes: "Trade will [after all] continue to be governed by rules that have served the trading community well for over 50 years. Globalization proved an easy target for an alliance of convenience between well-intentioned and more malicious protesters, yet the need for it to continue as the main vehicle of international economic progress still stands."

The editorial adds, however: "To say that the march toward open trade will continue does not argue for minimizing the damage of last week's events. The failure in Seattle will keep needless barriers in place at least a few years longer. Also lost was the chance to make reforms that would have addressed critics, prevented future backlashes like the 'battle in Seattle' and built confidence in the WTO."

The NYT sums up: "The WTO is not the [many]-headed monster portrayed by its severest critics. But after Seattle, it is all the more important for the [U.S.] administration or its successor to help enhance the WTO's legitimacy through reforms on secrecy, labor rights and the environment. That is what the demonstrators demanded. That is what people around the globe deserve."

LOS ANGELES TIMES: The shambles in Seattle are a taste of things to come

In the "Los Angeles Times," analyst Walter Russell Mead calls the WTO ministerial meeting "[a huge] flop. Instead of launching an ambitious round of talks," he says, "the meeting, and the week-long series of dramatic protests surrounding and overshadowing it, only revealed just how much trouble globalization -- supposedly an unstoppable juggernaut irresistibly mastering the world -- is in."

Mead continues: "The riots on the streets of Seattle were the most dramatic sign of the dissension, disorganization and backlash that have temporarily stopped the march toward world [trade] order dead in its tracks. While the street demonstrations got all the headlines, the story in Seattle was the deepening deadlock among the world's trade negotiators. If the protesters hadn't shown up, the headlines from Seattle would have trumpeted the diplomatic gridlock among the world's trading nations."

He adds: "Thousands of millions of poor people in countries like China and India want to work in factories that sell goods to the rich countries, but voters in many rich countries don't want to face ruinous wage competition from the Third World. If there were easy answers to problems like this, we would have found them already. As it is, expect more controversy and demonstrations over trade, but don't hold your breath for solutions. The world's economic and political systems are headed for unknown waters and choppy seas. The shambles in Seattle are a taste of things to come."

(Anthony Georgieff in Copenhagen contributed to this report.)